22 July 2009

Pat "Nutter" Brown Strikes Again

To change the world, it is not enough to have revolutionary ideas: you also have the inner force to be able to realise them in the face of near-universal opposition/indifference/derision. Great examples of this include Richard Stallman, who ploughed his lonely GNU furrow for years before anyone took much notice, and Michael Hart, who did the same for Project Gutenberg.

Another of these rare beings with both vision and tenacity is Pat Brown, a personal hero of mine. Not content with inventing one of the most important experimental tools in genomics - DNA microarrays - Brown decided he wanted to do something ambitious: open access publishing. This urge turned into the Public Library of Science (PLoS) - and even that is just the start:

PLoS is just part of a longer range plan. The idea is to completely change the way the whole system works for scientific communication.

At the start, I knew nothing about the scientific publishing business. I just decided this would be a fun and important thing to do. Mike Eisen, who was a post-doc in my lab, and I have been brain-storming a strategic plan, and PLoS was a large part of it. When I started working on this, almost everyone said, “You are completely out of your mind. You are obviously a complete idiot about how publishing works, and besides, this is a dilettante thing that you're doing.” Which I didn't feel at all.

I know I'm serious about it and I know it's doable and I know it's going to be easy. I could see the thermodynamics were in my favor, because the system is not in its lowest energy state. It's going to be much more economically efficient and serve the customers a lot better being open access. You just need a catalyst to GET it there. And part of the strategy to get it over the energy barrier is to apply heat—literally, I piss people off all the time.

In case you hadn't noticed, that little plan "to completely change the way the whole system works for scientific communication" is coming along quite nicely. So, perhaps buoyed up by this, Brown has decided to try something even more challenging:

Brown: ... I'm going to do my sabbatical on this: I am going to devote myself, for a year, to trying to the maximum extent possible to eliminate animal farming on the planet Earth.

Gitschier: [Pause. Sensation of jaw dropping.]

Brown: And you are thinking I'm out of my mind.

Gitschier: [Continued silence.]

Brown: I feel like I can go a long way toward doing it, and I love the project because it is purely strategy. And it involves learning about economics, agriculture, world trade, behavioral psychology, and even an interesting component of it is creative food science.

Animal farming is by far the most environmentally destructive identified practice on the planet. Do you believe that? More greenhouse production than all transportation combined. It is also the major single source of water pollution on the planet. It is incredibly destructive. The major reason reefs are dying off and dead zones exist in the ocean—from nutrient run-off. Overwhelmingly it is the largest driving force of deforestation. And the leading cause of biodiversity loss.

And if you think I'm bullshitting, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN, whose job is to promote agricultural development, published a study, not knowing what they were getting into, looking at the environmental impact of animal farming, and it is a beautiful study! And the bottom line is that it is the most destructive and fastest growing environmental problem.

Gitschier: So what is your plan?

Brown: The gist of my strategy is to rigorously calculate the costs of repairing and mitigating all the environmental damage and make the case that if we don't pay as we go for this, we are just dumping this huge burden on our children. Paying these costs will drive up the price of a Big Mac and consumption will go down a lot. The other thing is to come up with yummy, nutritious, affordable mass-marketable alternatives, so that people who are totally addicted to animal foods will find alternatives that are inherently attractive to eat, so much so that McDonald's will market them, too. I want to recruit the world's most creative chefs—here's a REAL creative challenge!

I've talked with a lot of smart people who are very keen on it actually. They say, “You have no chance of success, but I really hope you're successful.” That's just the kind of project I love.

Pat, the world desperately needs nutters like you. Let's just hope that the thermodynamics are in your favour once more.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.


Cassandros the Elder said...

There's a fine line between radical change for the better and tilting at windmills. This seems more like tilting. I think I'll celebrate Pat's new project by firing up the grill and having a nice steak.

Glyn Moody said...

People pretty much said the same about open access...

Filceolaire said...

Consider the amount of meat that goes into pies and curries and burgers and sausages. All that could all be replaced by any half way decent meat substitute and no one would know the difference.

Just find a way to make real meat more expensive and quorn cheaper and socially acceptable. It could be done.

Glyn Moody said...

@Joe: indeed - I'm that's the kind of thing he has in mind.

Lo0m said...

i'm open-source loving vegan so this just made my day. I always believed that people spending time talking about freedom could see animal concentration camps in the right perspective. propagandhi said it even better:

"Still I know as well as anyone that it does less good
than harm to be this honest with a conscience eased by lies.
But you cannot deny that meat is still murder.
Dairy is still rape.
And I'm still as stupid as anyone, but I know my mistakes.
I have recognized one form of oppression, now I recognize the rest."

thanx again for letting us know about this wise person (and yes - he will be labeled lunatic many times - as every revolutionary did)

Cassandros the Elder said...

Glyn, Open Access only had to fight entrenched business interests and professional inertia. Meat eating is in our DNA. We're omnivores!

Glyn Moody said...

Some of us like a challenge...

Anonymous said...

We can already grow muscle tissue in the lab, all that's needed is to make it possible to mass produce it. Maybe that's something Pat could explore?

Being able to produce real meat sans animals solves all the environmental problems Pat identified as well as addressing many concerns of vegetarians.

As a bonus it might also help to fund research into growing transplant organs.

Crosbie Fitch said...

A challenge you can really get your maxillary canines into eh?

Glyn Moody said...

I'm sure his wide-ranging genius is on to it...

Glyn Moody said...

@Crosbie: wisdom teeth, more like...